Category Archives: TV

Deep Ice: There’s more than enough for you and your friends, Senator (War of the Worlds II, Episode 4, Part 2)

Y’all ready for some political intrigue? Too fucking bad, it’s War of the Worlds II. The good news is that some actual stuff happens in this part. The bad news is that it happens on Earth, with all that implies. Oh yes, we’re back to the world of Ronald Ratkin (the world’s first Trillionaire) and Tosh Rimbauch (Making America Great Again).

But we’re not quite done with space yet. The Tor make their final preparations to send Jessica back to Earth, and it’s time for her to play her hand too early and gloat about her success with no consequences. She explains the Tor’s plan back to them for our benefit: Orion-1, newly refitted with a warp drive, will return to Earth, announcing success in finding water and forging an alliance with the Martians, which will surely prompt a ticker-tape parade and banquet in their honor full of world leaders. The Tor will follow Orion as far as the moon, and hide behind it until everyone’s at the banquet, and then they’ll “make their move”. The nature of this move is not explained, nor, honestly, what this plan will accomplish. It might make sense if the Martian clones were meant to assassinate or kidnap the world leaders. But there’s no indication that this is their plan, and it’s hard to believe that the Martians themselves would even be capable of it. It’s hard to fathom how Jessica herself could attend this hypothetical banquet, or indeed not be arrested for piracy the second Orion landed.

I mean, the basic concept that Orion with its ersatz crew will keep humanity from just shooting the crap out of the Tor the moment they arrive is solid. We learn over the course of this conversation that the Tor have roughly similar weapons capabilities to Earth, and that a Tor ship can’t withstand multiple nuclear warheads. This is an interesting shift from the trend in other adaptations, where aliens are sufficiently advanced that the only times humanity can fight back are in adaptations where they’ve repurposed stolen alien technology. Here, the entirely home-grown technology of late-20th-century Earth is equal to that of the alien invaders — the Tor leader will shortly mention that the lack of lightspeed space travel is the only area in which humanity lags behind the Tor. And little though this production has to do with the 1938 radio play to which it is nominally a sequel, it’s not a radical inconsistency; the tripods of the radio play were vulnerable to heavy artillery provided you were fast enough to get in a killing shot before they rolled over you, so it’s reasonable to imagine that the Martians (and the less-advanced Tor) were only a few decades ahead of human technology in most respects.

But when we get into the details, it all goes pear-shaped. Why hide the Tor behind the moon, where they’ll have to come out and make the last leg of the journey exposed, after they’ve been formally introduced at a banquet? Why bother refitting Orion at all — just show up in the Tor warship, broadcasting an announcement from the fake Orion crew that they found and borrowed a Martian ship. The whole point is to get Earth under their control without having to resort to a fire-fight, but there’s absolutely no indication how any of this would actually accomplish that. Are the Martians going to shape-shift back to their natural forms and just announce “Bwa ha ha! We’re not really the Orion crew! We’re aliens! And we’re conquering your planet!” whereupon the Secret Service will just shoot them and be done with it. Nothing in this plan makes it seem like it’s an improvement over “Just show up unannounced”.

While the main part of the plan is going on, Jessica will secretly communicate with Ratkin to reassure him that she’s got Orion under her control and he shouldn’t blow it up with his own private space-based weapons platform.

Yes, he has one of those. Don’t be stupid. Jessica cautions the Tor that Ratkin will try to double-cross them and conquer the galaxy, and the Tor counter that they’re going to kill her for suggesting such a thing. This is where she stops to gloat: on the last tape, she took a short break to hop back up to Artemis in order to murder her crew off-screen. I didn’t mention it at the time because it was handled as an aside by the narrator. But while she was up there, apparently, she filled Ratkin in on the bare outline of what was going on and had him arrange for his private space-based weapons platform to nuke the hell out of the Tor if they show up without her or try anything. The Tor congratulates her on having cleverly outmaneuvered them such that their only choices are to either agree to her terms or kill her and give up on Earth. For the sake of keeping this story going, they choose the former, but once she’s out of the room, they go back to bwa-ha-hahing about how they’re totally going to double-cross her once they’ve taken over the Earth and gotten rid of that pesky satellite.

Jessica also mentions in passing during this segment that the water crisis on Earth is entirely artificial; the Tor are concerned that even Ratkin’s empire wouldn’t be powerful enough to stop humans from pursuing Martian water out of desperation, and she flat out says that there’s plenty of water on Earth, and it’s only Ratkin’s machinations that are preventing humanity from making it potable.

The faux-Wagner music is traded out for the cheap ’80s crime drama sax on the transition to Earth. Major Stryker, Bob Boness, and the still-hospitalized President DeWitt get on a conference call to hear from Orion-1, which is finally checking in after an unspecified period of time which seems like it ought to have been at least a couple of months by now but time is passing at different rates in different parts of the plot. “Commander Ferris” calls NASA for the first time in months to announce that they’re on their way home to report success. They pretty much repeat everything Jessica already told us about their cover story: they claim that the Martians have agreed to help them, that the ’38 invasion was an by an unsanctioned rebel sect, that by way of apology, the Martians have upgraded Orion-1’s engines and agreed to help them extract water, and that the “feeble attempts” of Jessica Storm and the Artemis crew were “easily thwarted”. DeWitt finds the “feeble attempts” bit hard to swallow. We seem to have completely forgotten the bit from before where the jamming was attributed to a superluminal signal being transmitted from Mars to a distant star system.

Before disconnecting, Stryker gives “Ferris” the bad news about his wife: that she’s gone missing, suspected to have been kidnapped by Ratkin. The clone unemotionally responds, “That is most unfortunate.” But since this is the same character who has been acting like a particularly inanimate block of wood for three episodes now, everyone quickly dismisses any suspicion that there might be something “up” with the fact that he responded to the news of his wife’s abduction without any hint of actually being bothered by it. Just as predicted, DeWitt’s first thought is to throw a ticker-tape parade and state banquet for them.

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Tales from /lost+found 129: Week 2

Once again, turning to the Tardis Data Core for inspiration…

Legend of the Cybermen

Click to Embiggen

4×02 Legend of the Cybermen: The Doctor takes Sammy to Mythtopia, the greatest amusement park of the second Great and Bountiful Human Empire. But this playground of fantasy has become terrifyingly real: King Arthur searches Atlantis for the Holy Grail while Beowulf enlists the help of Count Dracula to defeat the Loch Ness Monster. But the greatest danger lies within the “Aliens Invade” attraction, where a long-extinct enemy from humanity’s past is being resurrected, and is intent on giving Mythtopia a deadly upgrade.

Deep Ice: They made a copy (War of the Worlds II: Episode 4: The Eye of the Storm, Part 1)

Am I the only one really bothered that they commissioned four different covers, each of which is its own variation on “Terrible composite of the Earth against a nebula of some sort in proportions that aren’t even vaguely plausible”?

Okay. Okay. Enough stalling. Let’s get into this thing. Part four. The exciting finale. Or whatever. As you can tell, I haven’t been looking forward to this.

In case you’ve forgotten, the missing-but-not-missed episode 3 ended with the deaths of Commander Ferris, Nikki Jackson and Mark Rutherford at the hands of Jessica Storm and her hired gun Walsh. After the ridiculously lengthy recap, we rejoin Jessica Storm on Mars, under interrogation by the Tor. It’s not clear to me whether there’s meant to be one or two of them there. The voices of the Tor are distorted with an echo and flange, slower and deeper than the Martian voices. This is justified in-universe by the fact that the Tor are communicating using the telepathic Martians as intermediaries: their native form of communication is based on smell.

They inform Jessica of their intent to destroy Earth: since humans will kill for water, the Tor can’t tolerate them as a threat to their supply of quorrium. Jessica counter-proposes that they make an alliance with Ratkin, who can provide them with unlimited slave labor and block any attempt to extract Martian water. The Tor accept her offer, and please her further by planning to work the Orion crew to death in the mines in order to gauge human physical endurance. We fade to the theme music as Jessica Storm laugh maniacally.

Which pretty much sets the stage for side one of this episode: it’s going to be a whole lot of villains monologuing and laughing maniacally as they plan their various double-crosses and backstabs.

The decidedly not-dead crew of Orion-1 wake up in a chamber deep below the Martian surface. It takes them little time to work out that they are prisoners of the Tor, the events of the previous episode having been some kind of mental simulation to test their levels of murderocity. The fact that Walsh and Jessica passed the test, while the others apparently failed does not fill them with optimism.

Everyone is so happy to not be dead that Nikki and Mark immediately go back to sniping at each other, giving us an opportunity to notice that I think they’ve recast Mark again. He actually kinda sounds like Dick York now. Or Dick Sargent. One of them. With maybe a hint of Jack Lemmon in there. And a hint of Boris Karloff a la How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

If, for some unthinkable reason, you’re just picking up the story now, then here’s some good news: Since Commander Ferris was up on Orion for the entirety of episode 2 and didn’t get to meet the Martians, and spent episode 3, I assume, fighting to the death, he never actually got to hear all that exposition the others got, so they get to spend the next five minutes catching him up on who the Martians are, who the Tor are, what quorrium is, how Hanoi Xan rose through the ranks of the World Crime League, and whether there’s water on Mars.

The Tor go back to Jessica to talk with her about Walsh. He passed the murder test, so they like him, but they don’t trust him. Jessica offers to sort things out, so they send her to see him. She slaps him for referring to her as “The Broad”, and his main concern is to accuse her of “going soft” because having been captured by powerful, murderous aliens and trapped many kilometers below the surface of Mars as the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, her first priority isn’t to find and murder the Orion crew. This annoys Jessica enough that she kills him.

She explains to the Tor that Walsh didn’t count as a “peer” because she hasn’t got any, and that Walsh had orders to kill her anyway: she’d tapped Ratkin’s phone and knew of the planned double-cross. This evolves into a long discussion about the nature of trust, wherein Jessica expositions that the Tor appear as moving shadows, but this is not their natural form (We’re told later that the Tor evolved from reptiles. We’re also told that they are a sulphur-based lifeform, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves for assuming that all life must be carbon-based just because carbon is actually unusual in the way it can bond to other elements, and has properties which sulphur doesn’t. Also, being sulphur-based would seem to make the whole thing about the Tor being related to Earth-reptiles seem even more unlikely. But it doesn’t really matter; the main point is just that they stink).

The Tor also reveal that she’ll be returning to Earth with a cadre of Martian slaves who’ve used their matter-manipulation abilities to assume the likenesses of the Orion crew.

This would have been a more impactful reveal in a format other than audio.

We also get some sermonizing, in case you’ve missed clunkily inserted authorial politics. The Tor suggest that they’re not so different, and Jessica claims that humans would never resort to slavery over water shortages. The woman who has literally sold out humanity as slaves to the Tor. So Tor tells her that humans just call it “minimum wage”. Later, Ari will also point out that humans and Tor have a lot in common, though he grants that, unlike Tor, humans have the capacity for kindness.

Jessica tags along when the Martian clones go to suck out the memories of the Orion crew, though she’s disappointed to find out that the procedure is “mostly painless”. While that’s getting set up, the Tor who’s been dealing with Jessica is summoned to speak to his “Master”, a Tor with the voice of an old man. Time for more bwa-ha-hahing.

They explain to each other that they are totally planning to double-cross Jessica Storm. Despite what they’ve told her, the humans won’t be used for quorrium mining. Humans are ill-suited for it, lacking the ability to manipulate matter on a molecular level, and being prone to dying from radiation poisoning and all. Instead, they plan to transport the human race en masse to the planet Brick (Different people at different times pronounce it differently, so probably it’s meant to be an alien-sounding name like Br’iak or Breeak or B’r’k or B””””k or something, but I’m going to go with “Brick” because that’s what it sounds like) to farm fungi. Earth itself is going to be strip-mined for its atmosphere, because as it turns out the Tor eat pollution. Also fungi, I guess, but mainly pollution.

I will note here that “Pollution is rendering Earth more attractive to aliens” is a ham-handed science fiction plot device which has turned up in lots of things before. Doctor Who has done it at least twice. Power Rangers also did it possibly twice, but I’m not sure because the plot of Megaforce was a god-damned mess. Did Captain Planet do it? Feels like the sort of thing they would do. And heck, War of the Worlds the Series even threw it in. So it would be petty of me to object… But I still object. Because War of the Worlds II has not done anything good to make me want to forgive them for the over-the-top moralizing of “Don’t pollute or else aliens will come and eat all our air.”

All the same, the Tor Master orders the Tor Underling to keep an eye on Jessica Storm, because she’s clever enough to pose an actual threat to them.

We transition back to the Orion crew with a musical sting that sounds like a cheap knockoff of a Wagnerian Opera. Jessica enters and gets taunted about the sulfurous smell that accompanies her. They accuse Ari of betraying them, but Gloria recognizes that it’s actually Ohm: the Tor forced the Martians to build him a new body and reinstalled his mind from backup. It’s a neat idea to toss in which could have interesting implications later on, and which (all together now) doesn’t come up again.

Jessica relishes telling the Orion crew about their fate in the mines, and throws in the really incredibly hackneyed over-the-top villain comment that Nikki should be “pleased” to follow in the footsteps of her slave ancestors.

What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck.

You know, the only thing I can even begin to imagine that line is for is because they got halfway through episode 2 and started to worry about how “implicitly white” this whole thing was, so they hastily started shoehorning in any line they could think of to convince the listeners that Nikki is black. And I’m not saying that it necessarily ought to be possible to tell a person’s race in an audio-only presentation, but Nikki is black the same way that any non-white character in the Superfriends is non-white: in the mode of a white person who spent a semester abroad and won’t shut up about it. Y’know, like your friend in High School who spent the summer in England and came back insisting on calling it “American Football” and using the exclamation, “bugger me!” in a way that indicates that she doesn’t know what it means. Everything everything about the character of Nikki Jackson screams at the top of its lungs “rich white girl”. So when she starts dropping anecdotes about being raised by her poor grandmother who lived through Jim Crow (the old one, not the Trump-era revival) in a few minutes, Imma call bullshit.

And Jessica’s casual racism is… So not only is it ridiculous and out-of-character, it’s not even believable racism. “You should enjoy slavery because your ancestors were slaves,” isn’t a sociopathic genius trying to be cruel. It’s not even a dumb person trying to be cruel. It’s just… I mean… Look, it’s 2017, so I think we all know what it looks like when a powerful white person says something incredibly racist. This is super fucking racist, but doesn’t sound like real-world coded racism, and it doesn’t sound like real-world overt racism. It sounds like exactly what it is: expository racism which is only there to remind us that Nikki is black, because the writers apparently have never actually met any black people and have no idea how to write the experience of being a person of color in 1990s America. Not that I do either, but at least I know enough to not do that.

Anyway, Nikki decks Jessica after the men all refuse to because they’re “old world gentlemen”. The Tor warn Jessica off of killing Nikki in retribution because, apparently, the Tor respect Nikki for her violent outburst.

With the Orion crew’s minds successfully copied, Jessica gleefully leaves them to their fate. And by “fate”, I mean another long talky scene. It takes Gloria and Nikki about thirty seconds to figure out what Jessica E. Coyote, Sooper-Geeeenius missed: that it’s radically implausible that Tor would want them as slaves in the mines.

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Deep Ice: In a Brave New World (DG Leigh’s The Massacre of Mankind: War of the Worlds)

That is epic levels of ‘stache.

It is January 1, 2017. If you are reading this, you were there. President-Elect D- Irm. President-Elect Do-. FUCK THIS NOISE. Okay. Right. Blah blah something about how he “knows things other people don’t” about Russian interference in the election. I wonder what that could possibly mean… A prankster uses tarpaulins to temporarily change the “HOLLYWOOD” sign to read “HOLLYWEED”. There’s a terror-related shooting at a nightclub in Turkey and a suicide-related shooting at one in Brazil.

TV’s repeats, obviously. We’re a week on now from Doctor Who‘s Christmas special and real-2016’s only new Who, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, which was fun, but filled me with dread that Harmony Shoal would be a recurring villain, having appeared both in this special, and last year’s “The Husbands of River Song”. Sherlock returns tonight with “The Six Thatchers”. Mariah Carey, Demi Lovato and Gloria Estefan are among the performers on Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve. I am so old now that I have literally never heard of any of the songs in the top ten.

Guess who didn’t learn his lesson last week! Oh yeah, we are returning to the world of D. G. Leigh with The Massacre of Mankind, billed as “The Unofficial Sequel to The War of the Worlds”. And once again, there’s some title confusion; the cover art seems to present the title as Artilleryman Needs You, which would kinda be a better title. Credit where it’s due, though: that is a cool cover. It’s reminiscent of the old “Uncle Sam Needs You To Join the Army” posters, but the art style and the presence of Mars in the background give it a threatening aspect. The mustachioed visage of the Artilleryman in his high-collared black uniform has obvious fascist tones to it, but more than that, I think it’s very obviously trying to call to mind the “Big Brother is Watching” posters of 1984. And the tripods and fleeing couple rendered as negative space cut out of the Artilleryman’s uniform are lovely. There’s something that just feels very retro-sci-fi, evoking any number of ’70s and ’80s short-lived “Heroes fleeing from a pursuer through a strange fantasy world” TV seriesAnd, of course, the old Sci-Fi Channel-specific logo for Doctor Who. The page headers go with The Massacre of Mankind: The War of the Worlds, but the title page, to make things worse, goes with The War of the Worlds: Brave New World. I am suspicious about the title. I kinda suspect that Leigh is going for a Transmorphers thing here, and expects most of his sales to go to people who have made a mistake.

Leigh is still full of interesting ideas and is able to keep up an exciting narrative, but once again, he’s stuffed the book too-full with more ideas than the narrative can comfortably support. And once again, his prose is largely artless and telegraphic. I feel bad for him; Leigh could probably be a decent writer if he had a good editor to help him polish his prose and reign him in.

While Sherlock Holmes vs The War of the Worlds mashed up two classic Victorian icons, The Massacre of Mankind is a more modern take on Victoriana. It’s a steampunk sequel. Well, sort of; it has a lot of the trappings of steampunk, but it’s stylistically more like cyberpunk — steampunk usually has a very different attitude, drawing from Verne and Wells, with themes that fit well with Victorian ideals about gallant men going out adventuring and finding exciting new worlds and exploiting them. This book, though, is set in a world of post-apocalyptic underground cities, with 31337 hacking and cyborg gunslingers. There are dirigibles, sure, but there’s also honest-to-goodness flying cars.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like Sherlock, Massacre is prefaced with apologies (or “Apologises”) from the author about his playing hard and fast with fact in his story about a turn-of-the-century authoritarian underground civilization besieged by alien invaders from Mars. It’s not as awkward as last time: he apologizes for referencing a seamount that wouldn’t be discovered until the ’50s and for playing hard and fast with the physics of a space elevator. Next is a very strange dedication, to the “gallant souls” who gave their lives at the battle of Anton Dorhn Seamount. Which is the battle at the climax of the book. He dedicated the book to minor characters in the book. He goes on to, I don’t know, name them? This doesn’t make sense at all. Under the title “HMS Phoenix Child” is a list of eight names presented in pairs, as though he’s giving a cast list. “Darren (Ulla) Dunn ….. Harwich”, “George Lindsey …… Ascot”, and so on. I’m not even sure if the names listed here appear in the text of the book. Best I can guess, he based certain minor characters on real people in his life, and he’s giving the cast list here, purely as a shout-out to his buddies. Or not, I’ve no idea.

Next, we get a quick summary of the premise which spoils most of the major plot points. It’s twenty years after the invasion, and the Artilleryman has become the dictatorial ruler of New London. The surface is largely uninhabitable in England due to the persistence of the carnivorous red weed. France, Germany, and a united independent Ireland have formed a coalition that’s at war with New London, but [sic] “Unable to replicate a certain Martian alloy, Marsuminium. Their alien-hybrid-steam-tank division edge ever closer to New London’s research laboratories hoarding stock piles of fighting machines.” Artilleryman (I’m probably going to slip into using “the” with him, but the book treats it as his name), having gained control of the lion’s share of Martian technology, has had its secrets unlocked and developed an arsenal of high-tech defenses.

But the Martians haven’t given up on conquest, and now, an orbiting space station is melting the polar ice caps in order to disrupt human civilization as much of the world’s population is displaced due to sea level rise, and a Martian sea platform acts as their beachhead for a new ground invasion.

We’ll spend roughly half the novel working our way up to the stuff that was just explained in that anteprologue. Then we get a prologue which basically tells the end of the war from the Martians’ perspective, with the dying aliens sending back a warning to their homeworld.

Then there’s an appendix to the prologue which covers ground we’ve already covered, briefly outlining the invasion of Britain by French and German forces, and how they were ultimately repelled by the red weed and Artilleryman’s greater supply of Martian technology.

And then there’s another appendix to the prologue about Artilleryman’s rise to power. His major qualification was simply that he’d survived. He lucked into commandeering a tripod and made a name for himself by using it to fend off French and German attackers. Good luck and charisma got the military to back him, and in the lawless chaos left by the invasion, he was able to build a new civilization, just as he’d planned, using heat rays to excavate an underground city.

We mercifully begin the story proper with the introduction of the narrator, who calls himself “Pockets”. He’s the son of Journalist (narrator of the original novel) and his wife, Carrie (h/t to Jeff Wayne’s musical). This was actually explained back in the second or third prologue, but I wanted to leave something until dramatically apropos. Journalist and Carrie had fled New London after he had a falling out with Artilleryman, but were forced to leave Pockets behind. Pockets grew up as a social outcast, his engineering genius unnoticed and unappreciated, and eventually became a criminal: a dealer of illegal books.

That’s a wonderful idea to splash into this dystopia. The Artilleryman is always depicted as having disdain for poetry and literature, and here, it’s contraband. Pockets smuggles books of nursery rhymes and poetry to people who’ll pay black market prices for the stuff, which paints a lovely picture of what kind of bleak existence Artilleryman has made in his underground police state.

Now say it along with me: Nothing Ever Comes Of It.

As I mentioned, Pockets is a mechanical genius, and it’s this, rather than the book smuggling thing, which is the primary mechanism through which the story moves forward. Among his early inventions is a steam-powered mechanical dog, Pooch, who serves as a sidekick for about half of the book. There’s some well-intentioned but not especially effective attempts to give Pooch some character: he vents steam through his rear so we can do fart jokes about the robot dog. And, not having ever heard a real dog, Pockets didn’t know what they sounded like, so he programmed Pooch to moo like a cow.

It’s Pooch who gets Pockets into book-dealing, locating a supply of illegal books and somehow working out on its own that Pockets could trade them for parts necessary to build a “sky-cycle” with which he could finally leave the city. We sort of skip ahead from there to what Pockets means to be his last deal, trading a banned bible to a vicar in exchange for a Martian power pack.

It doesn’t go well: the preacher (or “Preacher”) draws a gun on him, revealing himself as an undercover enforcer for Artilleryman, and he seems to have a personal beef with Pockets: “Your father also possessed. A sinner in league with Satan. Must be a bloodline trait? An unholy contract signed.”

Yeah, turns out that Preacher is the Curate. He’d miraculously survived being captured by the Martians, but retains a grudge against Journalist and his entire line for cold-cocking him and abandoning him. Pockets is able to escape, but finds Preacher and the police lying in wait for him when he returns home. Pooch sacrifices himself, taking six bullets to buy Pockets a chance to escape, which he does by sealing a tunnel hatch on Preacher’s arm.

With neither Pooch nor his sky-bike, Pockets stows away on a transport to an outer borough and uses his hacking skills to set up a false identity for himself there. We prance forward in time again while he sets himself up in the new development and secures a forgotten watchtower in which to build a new sky-bike, this time simply stealing what he needed from construction supplies, making me wonder why he was doing it the hard way before.

Discovered access to the forgotten watchtower network that originally protected us from the French and Germans while the caverns for Artilleryman’s brave new metropolis were being excavated STOP Used afterwards as Earth bound observation posts STOP Keenly viewed for any signs of a repeat attack launched from Mars STOP Once established and secure underground, the deeper the construction went the less frequent visits paid to the lookouts STOP Spread of the red weed kept the Free Lands at bay, the towers eventually mothballed, resources put to better use STOP Their glass domes covered with blast shields STOP Outside gantry doors wielded shut STOP

Having lost a sidekick in the previous chapter, it’s time to add a new supporting character.  Pockets eventually meets his neighbor, Tubance, “An orphan war child brought to the city by strangers. Found with two pennies in her top pocket, that’s how she’d come-by her name. Still kept the coins safe.” He’s immediately smitten:

How’d come [sic] she smelt [sic] so wonderful? The ways of the old world gone. No more indulgent imports from Paris of the latest boutique perfumes. Those frivolous fancies along with idle gossip of shocking vogue fashion fresh from Milan’s designer houses all belonged in a unattainable forgotten past.

A couple of paragraphs later, he’s made the “mistake” of falling in love with her. We skip ahead weeks or months, and Pockets has finished his sky-bike, but is dawdling on his escape due to his relationship. When he finally does decide to make his escape, he takes Tubance to his watchtower workshop to give her a chance to see the stars. Which, as it does, leads to sex.

They’re interrupted by guards who’ve noticed that the watchtower’s blast shield is open. Pockets hides Tubance and tries to convince them that he’s an inspector doing his rounds. They believe him, but are still duty-bound to take him in and file a report. The guards fail to see a “shooting star” that coincidentally falls during their conversation, but the narrator assures us that this heralds the arrival of the Martian super-cylinder that would, “Mark the start of New London’s collapsing foundations.”

Though Pockets’s cover identity, George Wells, level six engineer, holds up under scrutiny, the Artilleryman’s brave new world is largely powered by prison labor. After the initial excavation, the need to conserve heat rays had prompted a shift to a more pickaxe-based technology, as, “Artilleryman decided that a pickaxe and shovel were good enough tools to be getting on with, he wasn’t the one slaving and dying.”

So once they determine that he won’t be missed, the minor infraction of not having filed the proper paperwork is considered sufficient to merit our hero being shipped off to the mines. With Tubance sidelined, it’s time for our third sidekick, Pockets’s cell-mate, Zero. Zero’s a bruiser with no legal identity due to an unregistered birth. Pockets impresses him by insulting him while he’s killing another inmate. Leigh’s musings on prison buddies is about the most eloquent thing he’s written in two books:

I’ve learnt that there’s three types of friends you make in life. Those first in childhood. When you’re innocent. Free from envy, greed and the biological urge to f**k. When a friendship doesn’t have an alternative agenda for gain. The second is an unbreakable bond that comes from fighting with comrades on the battlefield. Included in this second category is also your prison cell companion. The third form of friendship is everyone else and doesn’t count for shit.

 

After a tangent about how miners frequently fall victim to a parasitic worm that came to Earth with the Martians and now lives in the ground (this goes nowhere, but provides a chance for a some horrifying imagery about being eaten from the inside-out), we once again prance ahead a bit, and find Pockets hauled off to an interrogation room. They present him with a miniature steam-powered reproduction tripod and demand he help them solve its balance issues.

When he feigns ignorance, the Preacher reappears, now sporting a robot arm and carrying the remains of Pooch. The jig up, Pockets looks at the source code for the tripod’s stability. See, this is what I mean about it feeling more like cyberpunk than steampunk: I shouldn’t be seeing a discussion about software bugs and computer viruses. Pockets recognizes that the flaw was deliberate, and Preacher reveals that it was the work of a saboteur, now deceased. Though hiding the full extent of his skill, he programs the tripod to right itself, then smashes it, which nearly wins him execution before a voice over the loudspeaker stays the Preacher’s hand (We’re not told what the voice says, and who it is is revealed in the next chapter).

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Deep Ice: The Aliens possess the means to make us block out the incident (DG Leigh’s Sherlock Holmes vs. The War of the Worlds)

It is November 27, 2015. In France, a memorial service is held for the victims of the November 13-14 attacks. Earlier this week,Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet. Stateside, Robert Dear shoots up a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three. Because he was a white man, the news never once described him as a terrorist, and indeed Fox spent a few hours claiming it was actually a robbery gone wrong because he’d mistaken the clinic for a bank or something. Though SWAT teams were used to bring him in, he was taken alive, and isn’t even in jail, since he was deemed incompetent to stand trial, again, because white.

Earlier this week, reporter Serge Kovaleski was mocked by GOP hopeful and costar of the 1989 film Ghosts Can’t Do It Donald Trump for his physical handicap. This was widely considered to be the end of his political career. I’m going to just lay down and cry for a bit.

Creed, eighth film in the Rocky franchise (Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa, The Rocky Horror Picture Show), premiered this week. So did the James McAvoy/Daniel Radcliffe bomb Victor Frankenstein. Shaun the Sheep is released on home video. One Direction takes Artist of the Year at the AMAs, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” takes Song of the Year. Adele’s 25 has the single best sales week for an album ever. Correspondingly, “Hello” continues to to hold the top spot on the Hot 100 for the third week in a row, and it’ll stay there for the rest of the year. I won’t bother you with the rest of the top ten since it was only like a year and a half ago. It’s got Drake and Bieber and Taylor Swift, because of course it does. The Game Awards are next week, where The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be named best game, while Her Story will get Best Story and Best Character Performance.

I release this Tales from /lost+found. This is weird. Real Doctor Who airs the penultimate episode of series 9, “Heaven Sent“. I liked it; it’s kinda when I started the healing process toward finding a new way to like Doctor Who. Not like I used to, but, like, some. Chris Evans announces the return of Top Gear next spring with himself as the new presenter following the, ahem, retirement of the previous hosts. Matt LeBlanc’s addition to the cast is not yet revealed. In the US, Superstore will be premiering this week, while Minority Report is ending. Power Rangers Dino Charge airs “Wishing for a Hero”, which introduces the characters of Hekyl and Snide, who will become the Big Bad for much of the following season. I don’t watch a lot of TV any more, so I’m not really up on what’s airing. I guess they based a TV series on Limitless? We’re so close to the present day that Chris Brown is Trevor Noah’s guest on The Daily Show.

And D. G. Leigh releases an ebook titled The Massacre of Mankind: Sherlock Holmes vs. The War of the Worlds. Or possibly Sherlock Holmes vs. The War of the Worlds: The Massacre of Mankind. It’s rendered one way on the cover and the other way on the page headers. But never mind that, it’s Sherlock Holmes fighting the Martians. Fuck. Yeah.

Y’know how last time I was expecting The Last Days of the Thunder Child to be crap and it turned out to be good? Yeah, that’s not happening this time. This book… Okay. This book is not irredeemable. In fact, it’s got a cool premise, it’s well-engaged with its source material, the plot is fairly solid, and frankly, there’s really only one thing wrong with it.

Unfortunately, that one thing is the writing. The writing is bad. The writing is very bad. Sentences so frequently omit such niceties as subjects or verbs, to the point of sounding downright telegraphic at times. And the word choice is frequently wrong, such as “beneficiary” for “beneficial”, or the charmingly off-kilter, “The delicious soup didn’t satisfy the hungry I had growing inside me.”

It’s so clumsy that you almost could’ve saved it with the right conceit. The prologue explains that this is one of those cases that Watson had held off publishing for fear of, “Thus diminishing both mine and Holmes’ creditably but now my companion’s brilliance is legendary fact I consider our reputations safe and firmly respected for me to reveal the most astounding case file of them all.” (The sentence actually does begin “Thus”. Like I said.) In Holmesean scholarship, it’s a common conceit to pretend that the Sherlock Holmes stories really did happen, and rather than writing works of fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle acted as a literary agent for a real Dr. John Watson. Now, some people view Doyle, in this model, as little more than a middle-man, but others propose that he really was a legitimate writer, responsible for the heavy lifting of tooling Watson’s case notes into a narrative, albeit with the occasional misstep such as relocating Watson’s war injury from time to time.

Leigh could have bought himself some goodwill, then, if he’d framed this story as one that The Literary Agent had passed on, forcing Watson to publish his own unpolished words. While it might not have made the book less cumbersome to read, it would’ve been a cool idea and helped to account for the fact that, while Leigh has his Sherlockiana down pretty solidly, he’s not even close to emulating the narrative voice of the Canon.

We start out with a forward that isn’t especially promising, but does give us an honest sense of what we’re getting:

This is a serious and intelligent interpretation and not a comical fusion of two classic genres. Using pivotal sequences portrayed in Wells’ masterpiece, we’ll accompany Holmes & Watson as they experience and tackle the horror of a full scale Martian invasion. Includes new plot twists with updated science.

Y.Yay? He goes on to do something that sends up a bit of a red flag for me. He offers a kind of glossary of two terms he’s “not happy with”. One of them is “Underground” to describe the London subway system. He’s unhappy because the Underground technically refers to a later incarnation of the London subway system, and the one in use at this time is more properly the “Metropolitan Railway”, but he’d feared that readers would be confused and not get that he was talking about a subterranean train system.

The other word he apologizes for is “Darkie”.

G’head. Let that sink in. He was exactly as bothered by being “forced” to use a racial slur for the sake of, ahem, historical accuracy, as he was about being “forced” to use an anachronistic term for a subway system. It’s one stupid throwaway line, too, that comes up in the context of someone mistaking the Martians for an unlikely counter-invasion by one of the African nations nineteenth-century Europe had been exploiting. It doesn’t have to be there, it adds nothing, and if he really were as unhappy about using the word as he claims, he could have just not used it.

And I haven’t gotten to the story yet. As the foreword explains, this is a retelling of Wells’s story, hitting on many of the famous scenes, but re-imagined in the style of a Sherlock Holmes story. And there is some solid imagination behind it. The general story feels like a very legitimate candidate for “How would Holmes behave if he were thrust into these events?” even if the actual text itself doesn’t work.

So how do you approach Sherlock Holmes in The War of the Worlds? Rewriting the story so that Holmes is actually responsible for the Martian defeat is a possibility, of course. It’s been done before, in books I may or may not get around to. But what Leigh does strikes me as somewhat more interesting. He sticks to the plot of the novel: the Martians are felled by common bacteria, through a lucky break for humanity. Holmes himself is largely powerless against them. Holmes’s genius, then, is directed not toward defeating the Martians, but more straightforwardly toward survival. Despite the “vs” of the title, this is less a story about Holmes taking on the Martians, and more a story of Sherlock Holmes using his great intellect to survive an apocalyptic scenario.

The major divergence from Wells’s novel comes with Watson’s assertion that the Martian invasion was covered up by the British government. “The August invasion got officially documented by our trusted scholars as the Great London Hurricane of 1894. The millions that perished died from an outbreak of cholera as a direct result of the storm’s aftermath.” The cover-up is implied to be motivated by a desire to keep secret the recovery of Martian technology, which Watson fears will resurface in the twentieth century as weapons of war. The impossible scale of the cover-up is facilitated by Leigh’s alteration to the nature of the black smoke. Rather than being deadly, it is imagined as an “amnesia gas”. Holmes, in the first of many places where Leigh drops in an adroit reference to Holmes arcana, likens it to the smoke used by beekeepers. The smoke pacifies anyone who breathes it, allowing the Martian handling machines to collect humans with ease for consumption (Rather than simply drinking human blood, Leigh’s Martians are described as pureeing their victims’ whole bodies). And I find it interesting that even this change is presented in a way that you could imagine Wells’s version as being an honest mistake: that another observer might see the smoke released, see only dead bodies remaining when it dissipated, and draw the obvious conclusion. There are other additions in a similar vein: the aliens are said to emit a sound which humans find subtly enticing. Holmes likens it to a dog whistle. I get the impression that Leigh wanted to reconcile the fact that the Martians are interested in harvesting humans for food. There’s some friction in the original book between the fact that the Martians clearly came with the intention of harvesting humans for food and their wholesale wanton slaughter of humanity. So Leigh’s Martians, though as deadly as ever, slightly modify their tactics toward harvest rather than slaughter.

Holmes, of course, recognizes the impending invasion from the time the flashes of the Verne Gun first become visible on Mars. He calculates that they are too regular to be a natural phenomenon, and more, that the slight variations in timing correspond to the gun tracking Earth as the planets pass each other. (I will apply greater Holmes arcana, though, and note that canonically, Holmes doesn’t know shit about astronomy because he can’t be bothered to waste space in his brain with anything he doesn’t think will be relevant to casework) Watson is slower to believe, and claims that, “The chances against anything manlike on Mars are a million to one.”

Holmes also fails to find a receptive audience when he drags Watson to the Greenwich Observatory. They meet Ogilvy, and Watson recognizes something of Holmes in the brilliant, addled astronomer who’s been without sleep for days as he observes the unique phenomenon. But Ogilvy dismisses Holmes’s theory of an inhabited Mars launching an invasion, and is disappointed to conclude that the great Sherlock Holmes is a disappointment in person. He first objects on the grounds of Mars being lifeless — he does not contest the existence of alien life, but considers Mars an unlikely source of it. He then challenges the level of precision necessary to hit Earth from Mars via cannon, then the unlikely utility of attacking another planet with a single shot per night. On this point, Watson surprises himself by defending Holmes’s theory, citing from his own military experience that many guns firing simultaneously would look the same from their vantage point. Ogilvy also challenges Holmes’s certainty that such an action must indicate an attack, rather than a means of communication, particularly when Holmes calculates that the first projectile would arrive in three days.

Holmes’s theory is confirmed in part, though, when the Martian armada passes through a meteor shower, causing explosions visible on Earth. This is also Leigh’s explanation for the invasion limiting itself to England: without justification for knowing this, Watson claims that nine cylinders destined (or rather, “destine”) for France were destroyed.

The best weather in recent years, skies crystal blue clear. Our thriving world must’ve looked so appealing against the vast empty backdrop of space. The Martians regarded our Earth with envious eyes. Drew plans against us. So unbelievably close to their own stricken planet, what fortune.

Nice reference, but, I mean, you coulda just actually quoted the line from Wells directly. At least it would’ve been gramatically correct.

Watson assumes Holmes has been shooting up with heroin when he turns up at dawn the morning after the first cylinder lands at Horsell Common. This is… neither straightforwardly right nor wrong. Cocaine was Holmes’s drug of choice in the cannon, though he was known to use morphine on occasion. Since The War of the Worlds is set some time around the turn of the century, “Heroin” would still be a new drug: it had only come on the market in 1898 — it was a brand name owned by Bayer. It’s entirely reasonable to suppose that Holmes might have dabbled in an exciting new opium derivative, but there’s no direct evidence for it.

Watson allows himself to be dragged out to Woking, but does not pass along Holmes’s warning that his wife should flee the city and hide in the Yorkshire coal mines. They meet Ogilvy at the landing site, and the two geniuses argue over the provenance of the cylinder. Ogilvy suggests that it might be copper, to explain its green glow, though Holmes counters that copper’s melting point is too low for a copper meteor to survive reentry. Ogilvy’s objections seem weak at this point, since the cylinder is clearly manufactured. Watson offers up the possibility that it’s a stray piece of ordinance from nearby Longcross — Leigh showing off some sound knowledge of the relevant geography and history, and again referencing Watson’s military background. But he’s so obviously wrong that he doesn’t even convince himself.

One of Leigh’s more interesting innovations on canonical characters is how Ogilvy reacts when the Martians emerge from the cylinder, mooting the question of its origin. Seeing absolute evidence of life from Mars coming to Earth. Ogilvy does an about-face, and this brilliant astronomer draws what he thinks is the only possible conclusion:

He reckons the Martians are Nephalim.

Yeah.

“I understand completely.” Ogilvy’s face beamed with enlightenment. “My whole life I’ve studied the heavens. God left us originally on Mars. When there was still a breathable atmosphere, that’s why they went there first. Those were the flashes we saw. There wasn’t a flood that Noah had to navigate. It was a drought of oxygen. The Ark’s voyage came here, to Earth, carrying the seed of man.”

Hey, that’s an interesting thing for someone to conclude. Kind of an inversion of the Curate becoming convinced (particularly the Parson Nathaniel version) that the Martians are demons. There’s obvious parallels to Pastor Matthew from the George Pal film as well, and I kinda suspect that’s the main motivation for it, given that, for its flaws, Leigh’s adaptation is the one I like the best for not pretending it was birthed in a vacuum and homaging the breadth of its influences. Even so, it goes farther than anything else I’ve seen. Maybe it’s even an oblique reference to the Ray Bradbury story Mars is Heaven.

And does jack all with it. Ogilvy runs toward the ship and gets squished by a falling hatch when it opens up to disgorge the tripods and that’s the last we hear of this whole “Mars is Eden” thing.

Leigh makes a change to the tripod armaments. The normal heat-ray is present, of course, described as two funnels which alternate firing. But this weapon has a third funnel with a different function: “The demonic third tube. Nobody deserved to die like this. An almost invisible beam that disintegrates the human skeleton. Still conscious men collapsed in a heap. God sparingly this terminal metamorphosis was fleeting.” Perhaps a reference to the film’s “skeleton beam”? Watson witnesses a man reduced to jelly by the weapon and tries to comfort the dying, boneless victim. It never comes up again.

Watson twists his ankle during their retreat, and takes shelter along with Holmes in a hollow log, which gives them a vantage point from which to witness the rout. “What I’m about to describe will sound crazy,” says Watson, sounding nothing at all like Watson ever, but the tripods are basically made like that liquid metal Terminator, and their legs deform around obstacles rather than having to navigate them. Holmes pockets some beetles that are, like humans, drawn by the dog whistle sounds of the tripods and try to drink their legs. The liquid metal poisons the beetles, but also seems to irritate the tripod.

When our heroes finally make it to Woking, they luck into meeting up with a cameo by recurring guest star Inspector Lestrade, who’s escorting a VIP sent by the government to help formulate a defensive strategy. The VIP is a genius, a professor of high regard, from Whitehall, whose field of study includes the occult and unexplained and we all know who he’s going to turn out to be, right?

In Leigh’s continuity, this is the first meeting of Holmes and Moriarty, which is a reasonable adaptation, though in the canon, Holmes and Moriarty have both died and at least one of them has gotten better again by now. Well, maybe. I don’t think Leigh directly mentions the year. I’d been assuming the story was set between 1898 (The publication of War of the Worlds and time most often assumed in adaptation) and 1900 (The closest we get to an actual date in the text), with Watson’s reference to heroin by brand name affirming this. But Watson is married in this story, and his wife is named as “Mary”, and as it happens, Mary Watson died in 1894. She was his only undisputed wife, though there’s a variety of opinions among scholars as to when and how many times Watson married. So maybe Leigh is implicitly setting this invasion earlier?If Holmes suspects the professor, he doesn’t let on, though Watson is put off by Moriarty’s almost-admiring tone toward Martian technological prowess. Moriarty explains his charge: “An approaching cylinder shattered the windows at Buckingham Palace. Overshot London crashed into the Thames estuary [sic]. Vanished beneath the frothing waves before a line could be gotten to it [sic]. A second craft came to settle in Highgate Woods. That’s one of Her Majesty [sic] favourites. She’s not impress [sic] with it being flatten by an uninvited lout. That’s when I was appointed on her behalf. Make contact, establish a dialogue. That’s before the Martians fired on civilians.”

Watson is knocked unconscious by another Martian attack which interrupts the exchange of information between Holmes and Moriarty. Though Lestrade had high hopes that an organized military counterattack would stop the Martians, these tripods are equipped with a “bell jar barrier”, which has to be a reference to the protective shields in the George Pal movie. Moriarty is seemingly killed fleeing the attack. Though Holmes wants to withdraw to the Isle of Wight to formulate a battle plan, he abandons the plan to accompany Watson back to London when his friend reveals that he hadn’t passed along Holmes’s warning to Mary. Holmes proposes they sneak into London via the Underground (There’s that word Leigh didn’t like), “Right under their feet.”

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Tales from /lost+found 126: Visit to a Small Planet

Yeah. It’s that time again.

Click to Embiggen

Infinite worlds, infinite possibilities…

Dean Chesterton thought it was hard enough being the Headmaster’s son at Coal Hill School. That was before he met his new science teacher, Professor Hu. Not only is does the strange professor keep getting lost in nonsensical lectures about other times and distant worlds, but now he’s building some kind of super-weapon. Who is the mysterious Hu? And why has he taken such an interest in Dean Chesterton? When a lab accident unleashes the deadly Skovox Blitzer on the school, it’s time for Dean to do the one thing he fears the most: involve his father.

Starring Jerry Lewis as the Doctor

Also starring William Russell as Sir Ian Chesterton and Alfred Enoch as Dean

 

Tales from /lost+found 125: Plastic Fantastic

3×15 March 5, 1999
PLASTIC FANTASTIC (Serial 34, Episode 2)

Setting: Seattle, WA, UNIT-time
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Jonathan Frakes (Agent Blackwood), Barry Jenner (Colonel Ross), Jason Alexander (Sam Kurros), Malcolm McDowell (Mr. McMaster/The Master)

Plot: With just seconds to spare, Lizzie reprograms the radio transmitter at KACL to cancel out the activation signal, preventing the Auton toys all over Seattle from activating. Agent Blackwood still can’t get authorization from his superiors to raid Delgado Plastics. The Doctor and Lizzie decide to sneak in. They are caught by Kurros when they try to sabotage the Nestene host body. The Doctor tries to persuade Kurros that the Nestene Consciousness will turn on him once their host body is ready, but Kurros seems unconvinced and locks them in a room full of activated Auton toys. The Doctor is able to fend them off with his sonic screwdriver long enough for Lizzie to escape, but is engulfed by the toys himself. Kurros finds the apparently dead Doctor a short time later and has his body dumped. When he relates this to his partner, Mr. McMaster, McMaster becomes enraged and uses a control device to have Kurros consumed by the plastic chair in which he is sitting. UNIT locates the Doctor’s seemingly dead body, whereupon he recovers, revealing that his Time Lord biology allowed him to bypass his respiratory system, preventing the plastic beads from entering his lungs. McMaster confronts the Doctor and Lizzie at KACL and attempts to warn them off. He is surprised the Doctor doesn’t recognize him. Blackwood threatens to arrest McMaster, but is stopped by Colonel Ross, who takes charge of the investigation and orders UNIT to leave Delgado Plastics alone, despite McMaster having all but confessed. Once the Doctor and Lizzie are alone, the plastic strap from Lizzie’s handbag comes to life and attempts to strangle her. The Doctor manages to modify a portable radio transmitter to neutralize it. They realize that the Nestenes do not need to manufacture Auton devices, but can animate any plastic object using their control signals, and when the full Nestene Consciousness arrives on Earth, the engineered host will serve only as the central brain for it, while every plastic object on Earth will become its body. The Doctor calculates that the KACL radio transmitter is not large enough to handle the bandwidth required for the entire Nestene Consciousness to come to Earth, and theorizes that they must have another receiver. Colonel Ross tries to have the Doctor and Lizzie arrested, but the Doctor uses his portable transmitter, revealing Ross as an Auton duplicate. Agent Blackwood orders a raid at Delgado Plastics, but the factory is abandoned when they arrive, with the Nestene host body having been already removed. Oddly, the large safe in McMaster’s office is also gone. Lizzie hacks their computer network and discovers a series of purchase orders leading them to the Space Needle. The Doctor determines that Nestene technology could effectively transform the needle into a crude but high-bandwidth radio telescope. McMaster activates the receiver just as UNIT arrives, and all over Seattle, plastic objects come to life and attack their owners. The Doctor fights his way to the top of the needle and confronts McMaster as he connects the receiver to the now-completed host body. McMaster is still confident that he can control the Nestenes. His confidence seems misplaced when he is attacked himself by plastic-coated cables. Angry at this betrayal, he produces a bottle of specialized solvent, which he pours onto the host body. The destruction of the host causes the Nestenes to lose control of the plastic in the building, giving the Doctor time to reverse the polarity of the receiver, repelling the Nestene Consciousness back into deep space. As UNIT agents storm the building, McMaster slips away to a back room, where the safe from his office inexplicably stands. Moments before Blackwood enters the room, McMaster climbs into the safe, which vanishes, accompanied by the distinctive sound of the TARDIS’s engines. Blackwood again tries to persuade the Doctor to stay on with UNIT. He recognizes that Lizzie is homesick, and gives Blackwood a communication device he can use to summon them in emergencies.

Deep Ice: Standing firm between them, there lay Thunder Child (CA Powell’s The Last Days of Thunder Child)

It is December 28, 2013. Dylan just turned two, and we just celebrated his third Christmas. I think this is the year I somehow damaged my leg to the point where for the next three months, every time I stood up, ten seconds later, I’d get a crippling pain like I’d been shot through my calf. I think most of the rest of my family had a good Christmas. Dylan’s fairly verbal now. A couple of weeks ago we had a cute little incident over some candy and a boo-boo.

Wars continue in Syria and Afghanistan, and there’s continued protests in Egypt following the coup d’etat and the ouster of President Morsi. And, of course, Iraq. Police in Newton, Connecticut release a batch of information about the Sandy Hook Massacre a year earlier. All chance of meaningful reform of our gun laws dies forever when we decide that even the murders of a score of children by a 20-year-old man-child is just something we all have to live with in order to avoid cutting into the profit margins of gun manufacturers or the racial paranoia of white people. Yes, I am angry. This will probably be a theme whenever we drift too close to the present.

James Avery, best known as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and as the voice of the Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will die this week. Ronda Rousey will retain the UFC middleweight championship title by defeating Miesha Tate. Ice prevented the Chinese ship Xuě Lóng from rescuing the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been icebound in Antarctica since Christmas. Xuě Lóng would become trapped in the ice itself during rescue attempts, but both vessels would eventually break free on January 7.

Eminem and Rhianna hold the top spot on the Billboard charts for the second week with “The Monster”. Also in the top ten are Pittbull and Ke&dollarsign;ha with “Timber”, OneRepublic with “Counting Stars”, A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera with “Say Something”, and Lorde with “Royals”.

Chris Pine just became the fourth Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It’s probably the most interesting thing to happen in the world of film this week, unless you’re one of the people who liked The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Chrismas, you know. Not a lot going on. Final Fantasy III comes out for Windows Phone. Good Morning America host Robin Roberts comes out of the closet. Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley return to Today this week, and Soapnet goes off-the-air. Nikita, the fourth or fifth adaptation of the 1990 French spy-action thriller La Femme Nikita, ends its run. Power Rangers Megaforce aired its last episode, “The Robo Knight Before Christmas” a couple of weeks ago. It’s one of two seasonal episodes that aired after the proper season finale because Nickelodeon wanted Halloween and Christmas episodes. And, yeah, can’t let it go unmentioned, Matt Smith bowed out of Doctor Who in “Time of the Doctor”, an episode that I haven’t actually watched yet, here on December 28, 2013. I’m putting it off because I’m afraid of what it will do to me if this thing which has always given me joy in my life when I needed to have something to look forward to and feel better no longer brings me any joy. (Spoiler: it doesn’t).

But enough of that. We’re here now because of the first book I ever bought for the Kindle, on account of it wasn’t in print at the time. The Last Days of Thunder Child (Victorian Britain in Chaos!) is yet another retelling of Wells’s story, this time from the point of view of the crew of HMS Thunder Child, the torpedo ram which succeeded in providing one of humanity’s few victories against the Martians.

We begin with this oddly-phrased preface:

June 1898:
From HG Wells WAR OF THE WORLDS

They really came and this is the alternative history of that coming. Let us join the crew of H.M.S. Thunder Child as she prepares to embark upon her doomed voyage—before her demise and courageous battle with three Martian tripods at the River Blackwater in the county of Essex, England.

The obvious problem with this endeavor is that the Thunder Child incident in the novel is… Pretty brief. Even the song’s not that long. The Thunder Child shows up, shoots one Tripod, rams another, then gets sunk. Thunder Child actually can’t get involved until the very end of its story. You may be predicting that this book is going to be pretty slow getting started.

And you’re right. In fact, for the first couple of chapters, it looks for all the world like this book is going to spend the overwhelming majority of its length just being a litany of the abuses heaped upon Boy Seamen in the Victorian-era Royal Navy, with all the rum and sodomy that implies. I was all set to write a scathing article about the book being a dull slog that was mostly about the author showing off his historical acumen (Powell is the author of four books, all of them historical adventures) But as it goes on, an actual story does develop.

But not, curiously, on the Thunder Child. See, Powell’s solution to the conundrum set up by the plot constraints is to alternate chapters between Thunder Child and ashore. Thunder Child spends most of the book hanging out off the coast, doing boring slice-of-life nineteenth century Royal Navy stuff, while on shore, a mid-level government man wanders up the coast having narrow escapes from the Martians in a way that sort of mimics the structure of Wells’s novel, though with quite a bit more excitement.

The downside to this approach is that the actual meat of the book is largely segregated from the thing the book is actually about. It’s not a complete tangent, though. The Thunder Child‘s last stand was made in defense of civilian steamers fleeing with refugees. So as we follow Thunder Child on its slow march toward destiny, the other half of the story is bringing us into position on one of those civilian ships, and that’s an ultimately clever move in that it gives us a very personal attachment to the people that the Thunder Child is going to ultimately die for. Possibly too strong an attachment; I ended up caring much less about the men sacrificing their lives than for those who were saved. The characters from the two halves of the plot only interact in the epilogue.

Mister Albert Stanley, of the Ministry of Defense, comes off at first as a bit of an officious windbag. His physical description makes me think of one of those awful fathers in British fiction who ends up getting thrown out by his son in the end, or blown up by touching a piece of evil or something. He’s balding and pinkish and big-nosed, and described as always imagining, “There was another him lavishing praise upon himself, while in the background, his proud old mother looked on with the appropriate smile.

But he shapes up quickly once he’s thrown into it, and its his side of the plot that is the more interesting bit. I should qualify that by saying that it’s the most interesting bit for me. Because the other half of the book, I think, isn’t bad or anything, but it’s targeting an audience that I’m not a part of. The main characters — though we end up spending a lot of time away from them and with the Captain instead — are a pair of young seamen, Perry and Jolly. They’re kind of wet and the first third of the book or so is about them being a pair of fuckups who spend a lot of time making the Quartermaster angry and getting in trouble. But they’ve got an arc to them, and their side of the book is mostly structured around them getting dumps of exposition about why things are the way they are in the Navy, and finding their respective places where they can grow and thrive. And it’s well-written, but it’s the sort of thing that’s very sharply targeting a naval history buff, which I am not.

He watched the surf erupt over the descending bow, drenching the deck’s capstans and anchor chains with slithering white foam that rushed out through hawse pipes and spilt over the side as the forecastle lifted again. […] Walking to the next stairway that descended from the main deck to the quarterdeck, he paused, thinking the vessel was most odd indeed. Almost like a Devastation class in looks, but too small. If she had one funnel, then she might be a Cyclops class, though he had to admit—her layout was more like that of a miniature H.M.S. Devastation…

Later on, Perry has a long infodump with Fancourt (a gunner who the narrative treats as important though he’s barely in the thing. I think. Confession: most of the Thunder Child crew kinda blend together for me) about the Thunder Child‘s unusual design and history. I think this section is probably easier to comprehend by someone more versed in Royal Navy history, but what I gather is that Powell’s version of Thunder Child was built during the transitional period between sail and steam, when ship-builders were trying out a lot of new designs and trying to work out what was best for this new generation of iron-clad steam-powered ships. I mentioned some time ago that torpedo rams turned out to be popular in the public consciousness, but never really caught on as practical ships of war in the real world. Powell uses this by having the Thunder Child be a bit of an unwanted stepchild of the Royal Navy for largely political reasons. He attributes large parts of its design to Cowper Phipps Coles, a real-world ship designer who’d pushed through some unpopular design concepts against the misgivings of some of his contemporaries on the HMS Captain, which subsequently capsized, taking Coles with it. Powell posits that Thunder Child had incorporated some of Coles’s designs, and that there had been a bit of a resulting embarrassment when it came out that one of the people who’d approved the design had previously spoken out against him over the Captain, so if anything had ever gone wrong with Thunder Child, there would have been a scandal over the Royal Navy having knowingly built a ship based on the flawed designs of a discredited designer. The ship is described as a “compromise” between the designs of the Captain, and the more famous and successful HMS Devastation, designed by Edward James Reed. The historical Reed had resigned in protest when Coles’s design for the Captain was funded over his protest.  So Thunder Child had spent her career on low-key duties and out of harm’s way, and staffed with officers who were similarly kind of embarrassing to the Admiralty despite not having done anything wrong enough to get court-martialed (One example is Commander Scott, who is said to have made enemies by pushing for better gun training and discipline to the point of insulting the general state of the navy’s gunnery). Though not the captain. They make a point of Captain McIntosh not knowing what he could possibly have done to get stuck on Thunder Child.

Also, Thunder Child is one of the last ships to still have muzzle-loading guns. This must be really important and interesting to naval history buffs, because they bring it up about a dozen times, with excruciating detail about how muzzle-loading guns work and how all the other ships on the Island of Sodor look down on poor little Thunder Child for having those nasty old-fashioned and quite possibly working-class muzzle loaders instead of proper modern English breech-loaders from respectable families in semi-detached houses. (Seriously, did you ever notice just how racist the engines are in Thomas the Tank Engine?).

Powell’s backstory for Thunder Child does a lot to justify the inclusion of this slightly weird technological dead-end  in Wells’s accounting, a justification more diagetic than “Wells clearly just thought torpedo rams were cool.” And it gives some justification for Thunder Child having a story in the war that keeps them at arm’s length until the critical moment.

What works less well is that we — well, me at least — never really get a fully clear idea of what Thunder Child‘s actual mission is or why it’s on it. Thunder Child spends the opening phase of the war patrolling up the coast, meeting with foreign ships, and wildly speculating, specifically ordered not to engage the enemy. Now sure, a ship with Thunder Child‘s provenance wouldn’t be the first line of attack, but why would one of the Royal Navy’s private embarrassments merit being sent out to liaise with foreign navies, or be given secret hand-delivered orders? There’s repeated references to Thunder Child being here because she’s considered expendable, but at the same time, her orders seem to be very specifically to stay out of harm’s way. The very explanation that justifies Thunder Child being away from the front precludes the sense of weighty destiny — characters even talk about this, that they sense that Thunder Child has some important fate in the stars for it — the narrative wants it to have.

This rough spot in Powell’s backstory also extends to the Albert Stanley side of the plot. On both sides of the plot, people ponder on the fact that Great Britain is disadvantaged here because so much of her strength is in her navy, which is largely irrelevant in the context of an invasion that literally drops down in the middle of the country from outer space. So why is the Ministry sending Albert Stanley — a minor paper-pusher — on a special mission to hand-deliver special orders to a slightly embarrassing ship that’s on its way to the scrapyard on the eve of an invasion? The question is raised, but never answered. And more, there’s a distinct sense that the government is taking action from an early stage, takes the Martian threat seriously, and is well-plugged-in to what’s going on. And this… Is a hard fit with Wells’s novel. As I’ve mentioned in the past, one sense I got from the original novel that rarely carries over to adaptations is that the Martians’ advantage came less from them being outright invincible, and more from the defenders being hampered by the sheer unthinkability of being attacked on their native soil by a technologically superior invader: a real sense that had the British been prepared and been quicker on the uptake, they might not have been able to defeat the invaders outright, but they could have at least avoided the utter rout they faced. Here, though, it seems like the government understood the scale of the danger early, and was taking proactive steps to prepare for it, and were just straightforwardly outmatched.So in the A-plot, Jolly and Perry get in trouble with the quartermaster for being fuckups, as I said, and while on a punishment detail, they overhear something they shouldn’t from the officers about the Thunder Child‘s mission, and end up basically being isolated from the rest of the crew for a few days to keep them from gossiping. And then, I wasn’t really clear on why, Jolly and Perry get in a fight. They lie transparently about it to the officers, Jolly claiming to have walked into a doorknob or something. But this, weirdly enough, actually ingratiates them, I think in that it it displays that the pair are starting to “get it” about life in the navy.

This is something interesting about the general arc of the naval stuff. It would have been easy enough to just depict the navy as straightforwardly hellish to the crew, full of abuse and sadism and the aforementioned rum and sodomy. It was the Victorian era, when being really unspeakably awful to people below your station was basically what powered the empire. But there’s something more subtle here. Now, I have no truck with the philosophy of forging bonds through abuse, but I can certainly accept it as a historically accurate thing for people to have believed. And heck, I went to my high school reunions, and I understand now that the distinction between victimizing abuse and fraternal hazing aren’t always clear-cut, particularly to the people on the receiving end. Powell moves his characters through a world where, yes, it’s par for the course for the new men to be abused by the old timers, but regardless of whether it’s right or fair, they do it under the belief that what they are doing to them is indoctrinating them into a family.

Quartermaster Middleton visibly warms to Boy Seaman (I’m never going to get used to that title) Perry in particular after his falling out with Jolly, and Perry spends most of the rest of the book finding his place assisting the signalmen (which, conveniently, lets the narrative stick with him and pick up the news as it is relayed by semaphore along the coast. Jolly, for his part, becomes closer with Boatswain Pickles and finds his place in the engine room.

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